Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi

Brief

The Treaty of Waitangi is a treaty first signed on 6 February 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and various Māori chiefs from the North Island of New Zealand. The Treaty entitled Britain to claim the islands of New Zealand as part of the British Empire, as a colony of New South Wales.

An artist's representation of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi - quick summary

The Treaty of Waitangi is New Zealand’s founding document. It takes its name from the place in the Bay of Islands where it was first signed, on 6 February 1840. This day is now a public holiday in New Zealand. The Treaty is an agreement, in Māori and English, that was made between the British Crown and about 540 Māori rangatira (chiefs).

Growing numbers of British migrants arrived in New Zealand in the late 1830s, and there were plans for extensive settlement. Around this time there were large-scale land transactions with Māori, unruly behaviour by some settlers and signs that the French were interested in annexing New Zealand. The British government was initially unwilling to act, but it eventually realised that annexing the country could protect Māori, regulate British subjects and secure commercial interests.

Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson had the task of securing British sovereignty over New Zealand. He relied on the advice and support of, among others, James Busby, the British Resident in New Zealand. The Treaty was prepared in just a few days. Missionary Henry Williams and his son Edward translated the English draft into Māori overnight on 4 February. About 500 Māori debated the document for a day and a night before it was signed on 6 February.

Hobson and others stressed the Treaty’s benefits while playing down the effects of British sovereignty on rangatiratanga (chiefly authority). Reassured that their status would be strengthened, many chiefs supported the agreement. About 40 chiefs, starting with Hōne Heke, signed the Māori version of the Treaty on 6 February. By September, another 500 had signed the copies of the document that were sent around the country. Some signed while remaining uncertain; others refused or had no chance to sign. Almost all signed the Māori text. The Colonial Office in England later declared that the Treaty applied to Māori tribes whose chiefs had not signed. British sovereignty over the country was proclaimed on 21 May 1840.

The Treaty is a broad statement of principles on which the British and Māori made a political compact to found a nation state and build a government in New Zealand. The document has three articles. In the English version, Māori cede the sovereignty of New Zealand to Britain; Māori give the Crown an exclusive right to buy lands they wish to sell, and, in return, are guaranteed full rights of ownership of their lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions; and Māori are given the rights and privileges of British subjects.

The Treaty in Māori was deemed to convey the meaning of the English version, but there are important differences. Most significantly, the word ‘sovereignty’ was translated as ‘kawanatanga’ (governance). Some Māori believed they were giving up government over their lands but retaining the right to manage their own affairs. The English version guaranteed ‘undisturbed possession’ of all their ‘properties’, but the Māori version guaranteed ‘tino rangatiratanga’ (full authority) over ‘taonga’ (treasures, which may be intangible). Māori understanding was at odds with the understanding of those negotiating the Treaty for the Crown, and as Māori society valued the spoken word, explanations given at the time were probably as important as the wording of the document.

Different understandings of the Treaty have long been the subject of debate. From the 1970s especially, many Māori have called for the terms of the Treaty to be honoured. Some have protested – by marching on Parliament and by occupying land. There have been studies of the Treaty and a growing awareness of its meaning in modern New Zealand.

It is common now to refer to the intention, spirit or principles of the Treaty. The Treaty of Waitangi is not considered part of New Zealand domestic law, except where its principles are referred to in Acts of Parliament. The exclusive right to determine the meaning of the Treaty rests with the Waitangi Tribunal, a commission of inquiry created in 1975 to investigate alleged breaches of the Treaty by the Crown. More than 2000 claims have been lodged with the tribunal, and a number of major settlements have been reached.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Treaty of Waitangi?

The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of New Zealand. It is an agreement entered into by representatives of the Crown and of Māori iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes). It is named after the place in the Bay of Islands where the Treaty was first signed, on 6 February 1840. The Treaty was not drafted as a constitution or a statute. It was a broad statement of principles upon which the British officials and Māori chiefs made a political compact or covenant to found a nation state and build a government in New Zealand to deal with pressing new circumstances. Like many treaties, it is an exchange of promises between the parties to it.

What does the Treaty of Waitangi say?

The Treaty has three articles. In the English version, Māori cede the sovereignty of New Zealand to Britain; Māori give the Crown an exclusive right to buy lands they wish to sell and, in return, are guaranteed full rights of ownership of their lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions; and Māori are given the rights and privileges of British subjects. The Treaty in Māori was deemed to convey the meaning of the English version, but there are important differences. Most significantly, in the Māori version the word ‘sovereignty’ was translated as ‘kawanatanga’ (governance). Some Māori believed that the governor would have authority over the settlers alone; others thought that they were giving up the government over their lands but retaining the right to manage their own affairs. The English version guaranteed ‘undisturbed possession’ of all properties, but the Māori version guaranteed ‘tino rangatiratanga’ (full authority) over ‘taonga’ (treasures, which can be intangible). The precise nature of the exchange within the Treaty of Waitangi is a matter of debate.

Who signed the Treaty of Waitangi, where and when?

More than 40 chiefs signed the Māori copy of the Treaty at Waitangi on 6 February 1840. Copies were then taken all around the country, and chiefs from many places signed. There were about 50 signing meetings between February and September 1840 and about 540 chiefs gave their agreement. All but 39 chiefs signed a Māori-language copy of the Treaty.

Why was the Treaty of Waitangi entered into?

New Zealand was changing quickly in the late 1830s. British subjects and other Europeans were acquiring land from Māori and had set up valuable commercial operations. Large groups of settlers had set out for New Zealand in 1839. Crime, violence and general lawlessness was rife, and the British Resident from 1833, James Busby, could do little to control it. Foreign powers, notably the French, were also taking an interest in New Zealand. The British government appointed Captain William Hobson as consul and provided him with instructions to negotiate for the sovereignty of New Zealand and for the setting up of a British colony.

What happened after the Treaty was signed?

Shortly after the Treaty was signed, Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson proclaimed British sovereignty over the whole of New Zealand. His proclamations were ratified by the British government in October 1840. Under British law, New Zealand became technically a part of the colony of New South Wales. Further constitutional changes in late 1840 and early 1841 made New Zealand a Crown colony in its own right.

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THE TREATY OF WAITANGI - English text version

HER MAJESTY VICTORIA Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland regarding with Her Royal Favor the Native Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and anxious to protect their just Rights and Property and to secure to them the enjoyment of Peace and Good Order has deemed it necessary in consequence of the great number of Her Majesty's Subjects who have already settled in New Zealand and the rapid extension of Emigration both from Europe and Australia which is still in progress to constitute and appoint a functionary properly authorised to treat with the Aborigines of New Zealand for the recognition of Her Majesty's Sovereign authority over the whole or any part of those islands – Her Majesty therefore being desirous to establish a settled form of Civil Government with a view to avert the evil consequences which must result from the absence of the necessary Laws and Institutions alike to the native population and to Her subjects has been graciously pleased to empower and to authorise me William Hobson a Captain in Her Majesty's Royal Navy Consul and Lieutenant-Governor of such parts of New Zealand as may be or hereafter shall be ceded to her Majesty to invite the confederated and independent Chiefs of New Zealand to concur in the following Articles and Conditions.

Article the first [Article 1]

The Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand and the separate and independent Chiefs who have not become members of the Confederation cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty which the said Confederation or Individual Chiefs respectively exercise or possess, or may be supposed to exercise or to possess over their respective Territories as the sole sovereigns thereof.

Article the second [Article 2]

Her Majesty the Queen of England confirms and guarantees to the Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and to the respective families and individuals thereof the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess so long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession; but the Chiefs of the United Tribes and the individual Chiefs yield to Her Majesty the exclusive right of Preemption over such lands as the proprietors thereof may be disposed to alienate at such prices as may be agreed upon between the respective Proprietors and persons appointed by Her Majesty to treat with them in that behalf.

Article the third [Article 3]

In consideration thereof Her Majesty the Queen of England extends to the Natives of New Zealand Her royal protection and imparts to them all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects.

(signed) William Hobson, Lieutenant-Governor.

Now therefore We the Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand being assembled in Congress at Victoria in Waitangi and We the Separate and Independent Chiefs of New Zealand claiming authority over the Tribes and Territories which are specified after our respective names, having been made fully to understand the Provisions of the foregoing Treaty, accept and enter into the same in the full spirit and meaning thereof in witness of which we have attached our signatures or marks at the places and the dates respectively specified. Done at Waitangi this Sixth day of February in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty.

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